Celebration, Sadler's Wells, London

Sweet farewell to a Beauty who will arise no more
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The Independent Culture

As with tennis players and athletes, a ballerina's decision to stop often comes as a shock and a frustration. Of course they want to retire at their peak, but ... if they're still so good, why now and not next season? The Estonian Agnes Oaks gave a sweet but decisive answer to that in a filmed link between items in Friday night's upbeat farewell gala. "I would love to have bit calmer life," she said, in her still-imperfect English. "And I'd like to feel no pain." You can't argue with that.

Selecting a clutch of pieces to represent a 20-year career (almost all of it with English National Ballet, partnered by her equally feted husband, Thomas Edur) was a tough call. Everyone has personal favourites and, for me, there should have been a nod to Oaks's Giselle, unforgettable for its glacial delicacy and thoroughbred style. But too many bleeding chunks make a messy programme, and this one was admirably neat and succinct, favouring short, complete works over extracts, interspersed with glimpses into Oaks's and Edur's working life.

Video production came courtesy of the Ballet Boyz, aka Billy Trevitt and Michael Nunn, and they got the tone just right. Toothy childhood snaps overlaid with spoken reminiscences of ballet school in Tallinn, touching footage of the teenage dance partnership (when Agnes had quite a bosom – what happened to that?), and even scraps of the couple's wedding video, all helped shed light on an unusually durable working relationship and a rare physical and emotional fit.

Edur got his oar in first at Sadler's Wells with Apollo, George Balanchine's cool, modernist take on the maturing of the young deity. It's not every 38-year-old guy who can look godlike in no shirt and white tights. But Edur is a sleek and meticulous stylist and his Apollo still shines, dazzling in the geometric poses. Oaks was his crystal-cut Terpsichore, her gifts for precision to the fore, inspiring Erina Takahashi and Sarah McIlroy to a close enough match as fellow goddesses.

Wayne McGregor's 2 Human – created for the couple in 2003 – couldn't be more of a contrast. I'm not sure what Edur's blacked eyes were about, but his slurred and jelly-jointed movements looked either drunk or drugged. Oaks, meanwhile, presented a cross between a bedraggled baby bird and an Edwardian porn star. Suffice to say that the duet is spiky and gymnastic, the mood insouciant bordering on insolent. I'd hazard this is one Oaks's family never got to see.

Even the fillers in this show kept up the momentum. Begona Cao and Esteban Berlanga were fabulous in Ben Stevenson's Three Preludes, finding surprising uses for a classroom barre. But nothing came close to the poise and joy of Oaks and Edur in their signature high-classical roles, in the grand pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty. From the spring in those toes, the effervescence of those hops and turns, you'd say Oaks could have gone on all night, all week, next year ....